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LA’s proposed emergency communications system goes beyond 911

A police cruiser is parked outside a police department in Riverside. The department was heavily secured by guards with automatic weapons.
Grant Slater/KPCC
A police cruiser is parked outside a police department in Riverside.

A new emergency communication system placed on hold by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday goes far beyond radio calls from dispatchers. The $190 million project would build a dedicated broadband network for police and fire departments to send data within and among agencies, including live video.

“Imagine having an incident commander be able to see exactly what’s going as a special weapons team enters a building,” said Pat Mallon, executive director of the LA Regional Interoperable Communications System - LA-RICS.

Conceivably, video from police body cameras could be live streamed during major incidents. (The LAPD plans to place body cams on all patrol officers.)

Video is an increasingly valuable tool for cops and firefighters, Mallon said, but they often rely on commercial networks to transmit it.

“The commercial systems become very burdened during times of emergency and you cannot send video, or its very broken video,” he said. Commercial providers like AT&T and Verizon don’t give priority to police and fire agencies during earthquakes and other emergencies, he said.

The new system calls for building 177 dedicated cellular towers - mostly atop fire and police stations around the county. 

But some cities have complained the project is too expensive and unnecessary, and have dropped out. 

The system would receive 80% of its funding by a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant from the federal government, which requires the system to be operable by September 30. But so far, only 14 towers have been built.

Supervisors halted the project Tuesday in part after complaints from residents and firefighters who worry about the health risks of radio waves from the towers.

That decision places federal funding for the project in jeopardy.

Mallon said federal officials reiterated in conversations Wednesday that the September deadline was firm.

He said he and other supporters - including Sheriff Jim McDonnell and County Fire Chief Daryl Osby - are trying to assuage county Supervisors' concerns.